‘The Last of Us,’ Season 1, Episode 6: The Ties That Bind

Season 1, Episode 6: ‘Kin’

In the old western movies, the aging cowboys and gunslingers would sometimes talk about giving up the vagabond life and buying a ranch, where they could settle down — bothering no one and going unbothered. In this week’s “The Last of Us,” Joel and Ellie spend a fair amount of the episode riding horses, shooting guns and facing down posses, just like those western heroes. They also find the time to talk about what their lives might be like after the Fireflies whip up a cure for the cordyceps infection. And sure enough, the first thing Joel imagines for himself is living in an old farmhouse and raising sheep — who, he says pointedly to Ellie, are “quiet and do what they’re told.”

As we move into the second half of this season and get closer to the point where Joel is supposed to turn Ellie over to the Fireflies and possible save humanity, it’s only natural for these two to start thinking about what comes next. And it makes sense for Joel — who has seen enough of this fallen world — to want to escape from everything and everybody.

But Ellie’s experiences have been more limited. She never experienced life before cordyceps. She seems less sure of what a “normal” life should be like. She knows the Boston Quarantine Zone — functional but depressing. She got a brief glimpse at Bill and Frank’s survivalist oasis but never really saw it in action. She has seen the horrors of “Killer City.” So what does she want for herself? She used to dream of being Sally Ride. Will that ever be an option again in her lifetime?

At the start of this episode, Joel and Ellie invade the remote cabin of an old Indigenous couple, Marlon (Graham Greene) and Florence (Elaine Miles), who are skeptical about their prospects in Wyoming. (When Joel asks for the best way to head west, Marlon says, “Go east.”) But then our heroes make it all the way to Jackson, where they encounter a whole other way of living: calmer, safer and more social.

And neither Joel or Ellie are sure they want any part of it.

To be fair, by the time they get to Jackson, they are feeling pretty stressed. Marlon and Florence warned them that Wyoming would be a deathtrap, with every major city swarming with infected and the wilderness strewn with corpses. Even the Jackson emissaries they meet out on the road initially surround them on horseback and let a snarling dog sniff them to see if they are sick. (Joel looks terrified as the hound approaches Ellie, unsure if she will pass the test.)

Inside the Dystopian World of ‘The Last of Us’

The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired the TV series “The Last of Us” won over players with its photorealistic animation and a morally complex story.

  • Game Review: “I found it hard to get past what it embraces with a depressing sameness, particularly its handling of its female characters,” our critic wrote of “The Last of Us” in 2013.
  • Left Behind: The Last of Us: Left Behind,” a prologue designed to be played in a single sitting, was an unexpected hit in 2014.
  • 2020 Sequel: The Last of Us Part II,” a tale of entrenched tribalism in a world undone by a pandemic, took a darker and unpredictable tone that left critics in awe.
  • Playing the Game: Two Times reporters spent weeks playing the sequel in the run-up to its release. These were their first impressions.

Then they get taken behind Jackson’s enormous wooden gates, and inside they find a kind of utopia. The residents have power, thanks to a nearby hydroelectric dam. They have a sewage system. They grow vegetables and raise livestock. They have nice houses, Christmas trees and movie nights. (During Joel and Ellie’s stay, the community center is showing the 1977 Neil Simon comedy “The Goodbye Girl.” Hey, in the end times, a movie is a movie.)

Jackson also has Joel’s brother, Tommy, who left the Fireflies and settled down with his new wife Maria (Rutina Wesley). As soon as Maria sees Ellie — all scruffy and scrappy — her maternal instinct kicks in. She gives Ellie a few things she’s sure the girl needs: an “eggplant”-colored winter coat, a menstrual cup and a haircut. (Maria: “Who’s been cutting your hair?” Ellie: “World class salons.”)

She also offers Ellie advice, born of her years as the Assistant District Attorney in Omaha. “Be careful who you put your faith in,” she says. Maria thinks she knows the kind of person Joel is, based on what Tommy has told her about their time on the road. Ellie’s reply? “Maybe I’m smarter than Tommy.”

As for Tommy — described derisively by Joel two episodes ago as “a joiner” — he looks both happy and wary to see his brother. He is not too keen on the way Joel seems to roll his eyes at Jackson’s communistic “share and share alike” approach to survival. (When Joel suggests that this kind of living isn’t their way, Tommy replies, “There were other ways, we just weren’t any good at them.”) But when Joel explains who Ellie really is and what his mission is — and adds that he feels like he has lost his edge and his reaction time as he has gotten older — Tommy agrees to take over the job of escorting Ellie to the Firefly compound at the University of Eastern Colorado.

Hearing this plan, Ellie panics. She may not know exactly what kind of life she wants to lead after the world gets fixed, but she knows she is not ready to live it without Joel. So Joel relents. They say their goodbyes to Tommy and head down to Colorado together, feeling more bonded than ever. Because Maria told Ellie a little about Sarah, Joel starts letting down his guard. He talks about the old world, and his old job. (“Everybody loved contractors,” he insists.) When Ellie asks whether America used to be like the way things are in Jackson, he admits the real world was much more competitive.

Gabriel Luna and Pascal in “The Last of Us.”Credit…Liane Hentscher/HBO

But it seems Joel was right to doubt himself. The UEC campus turns out to be Firefly-free, with indications that the group has fled to Salt Lake City. Before Joel and Ellie can regroup, they see raiders roaming by and have to hurry back onto their horse — though not before Joel, while fighting off one of the interlopers, gets stabbed by a broken baseball bat. He has been dealing with some kind of chest pains all episode. That, combined with the wound in his gut, fells him on the outskirts of town.

Back in the first episode, as Joel and Ellie left Boston, the radio in his apartment played Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again,” sounding a warning he did not hear: Do not fail another teenage girl. As he slumps off his horse, the song returns, in a slowed-down, ethereal cover version. It’s like a voice from beyond, mocking Joel with lyrics that now sound like lies: “He knows where he’s taking me / Taking me where I want to be.”

Side Quests

  • It’s too bad that Joel and Ellie didn’t get to spend more time with grumpy old Marlon and Florence, because those two were a hoot. Greene (“Dances with Wolves”) and Miles (“Northern Exposure”) are veterans of the big and small screen, and their characters’ deadpan digs at each other are wonderfully wry. When a gun-wielding Joel asks Marlon to show him where they are on his map and growls, “Your answer better be the same as your wife’s,” Marlon asks Florence, “Did you tell him the truth?” When she says yes in a hesitant monotone, an uncertain Marlon then asks, “Are you telling me the truth?”

  • Ellie’s brain has been so warped by her book of puns that when she looks upon the splendor of an active hydroelectric plant, she says to Joel, “Dam!” (Joel: “You’re no Will Livingston.” Ellie: “Who is?”) And Joel’s brain has been so warped by her daily barrage of questions that after mentioning what a dam does he quickly adds, “Don’t ask me how it works.”

  • Joel and Tommy have their first long conversation at an actual bar, drinking what looks like pretty good whiskey. This got me thinking: How many unspoiled food and beverage products from before the apocalypse would still be unconsumed 20 years later? I suspect there was probably enough bottled alcohol left in the world to supply survivors for centuries — but only if they could safely get to it.

  • This episode opens with a flashback to Henry’s suicide, which again includes the sound of Ellie’s haunting reaction: a startled combination of a gasp and a pained moan. That’s one end of Bella Ramsey’s remarkable acting range. The other end is seen and heard in Ellie’s unceasing line of goofy banter, as when she teases Joel’s poetic description of proper rifle-handling by asking, “You gonna shoot this thing or get it pregnant?”

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